Top Ten Reasons I Love the Writers’ Police Academy

I heard about the Writers’ Police Academy from my Sister in Crime, Jessie Chandler, and decided to go this year. It was awesome. Here’s why:

  1. Girls’ Road Trip. On Thursday morning, I took my first road trip in years (sans dog, child, and husband) with two up-and-coming crime writers, Michelle Kubitz and Emily Gorman. Although we had spoken at several Twin Cities Sisters in Crime meetings, it was on this trip that I got to know Shelley and Emily and their writing.
    1. Road Trip
  2. Beer and Cheese. You can’t shake a stick in Wisconsin without hitting a can of beer or a block of cheese. On Thursday afternoon, we ate lunch at the Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company in Wausau. I drank a beer in something called a crowler, which is a growler in a can. You learn something new every day.
    2A. Crowler
    Supposedly, authentic cheese curds will make a squeaky noise when you bite into them. Did ours do that? I’m not sure because we inhaled them in less than five minutes’ time.
    2B. Cheese Curds
  3. Sisters and Misters. In Green Bay, we realized we were not alone; there were Sisters and Misters everywhere. At the Sisters in Crime table, we introduced ourselves to President Leslie Budewitz and Debra Goldstein. It was a nice way to kick off Thursday night.
    3. Sisters in Crime
  4. Special Ops Show and Tell. At the hands-on demonstrations, we spent some time watching the K-9 officer and his police dog. Then we spoke at length with an officer on the bomb squad team who gave us insight into the challenges his team faces on a regular basis. I came away with some great ideas for my novel-in-progress, a police procedural set in Australia. We wrapped up the event with a photo on this super-humongous bear cat.
    4. Bear Cat
  5. Emergency Driving. On Friday morning, I took a “crash course” on Emergency Driving with driving partners, Leslie Budewitz and Karen Heines, and our instructor, Colleen Belongeo. Part of what makes the WPA great is the opportunity to take note of how cops talk, walk, and hold themselves. Our instructors (including Colleen and John Flannery) were so incredibly personable, intelligent and self-assured that I’m sure they’ll end up in many of the writers’ stories. (I know they’re going to end up in mine).
    5B. Emergency Driving w Colleen
    Among other things, Colleen taught us the proper way to round corners at high speed. The experience definitely made me think about what those high-speed chases would be like for my story’s protagonists, a Latina constable and her partner.
    5A. Emerg Driving all
  6. Peeps. On Friday and Saturday, we hung out with Doug Dorow and Carol Huss, fellow crime writers from Minnesota. It was fun to review the classes we’d taken and to discuss our stories. We also met crime writers from Milwaukee, Toronto, Vancouver, Virginia Beach, and Seattle. I feel fortunate to have forged connections with all of these incredible people.
    6. MN Writers
  7. Diversity. I had no idea that Green Bay skirts Oneida tribal land. As a writer of color, it was very powerful to see diverse police officers in action at the Writers’ Police Academy. All ages, sexes, and races were represented. Also, as you can see, the “eye candy” quotient was very high. Just sayin’.
    7. Diversity Looks Good
  8. Real Cops for Real Writers. Retired Madison police officer, Paul Smith, tugged at my heartstrings when he explained how he developed PTSD following two fatal shootings (he was cleared in both incidents). I can’t imagine a more stressful job than that of a police officer. While the high-stress situations police officers face make for great fiction, the actual toll stress takes on officers can be devastating.Trying to create the mental health support needed for officers is an overwhelming task. I have been following the Victoria Police’s attempts to create a safety net for its officers in Australia following a review last year which stated the department’s “suck it up” management style was its greatest weakness. At one point, Smith considered suicide but was able to turn his life around and now works as a PTSD counselor and law enforcement trainer. The session was very moving, and Smith’s service dog had me at hello (shhh, don’t tell my black Lab, Sinjin). Here we are together―and in love.
    8. We're In Love
  9. Tami Hoag and Long Gun: Live Fire. What can I say about this unbelievable experience? Shooting a .223 patrol rifle. With Tami Hoag at my side.
    Guns
    *Mic drop.*

    Tami was the keynote speaker at the banquet on Saturday night. She was so open and honest with us; it was a speech I won’t soon forget.
    9. Jessica & Tami Hoag
  10. Dancing. Whaaat? Dancing in Green Bay, Home of the Packers? Yes, yes, and yes. On Friday night, we danced with the enemy (Packer fans) at The Stadium View Bar & Grille, but kept our identities as Vikings fans a secret.
    10A. Stadium View Bar & Grille
    Then we boogied down on Saturday night with our new WPA friends (including Jill and Colleen “The Rock” Belongeo) at Purcell’s Lounge until we shut that mother down.
    10B. Dancing at Purcell's

Overall, I had an amazing time at the Writers’ Police Academy. Many thanks to everyone who made this such an incredible experience for attendees. I will be practicing my dance moves in preparation for next year’s conference. See you in 2017!

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Citizen Law Enforcement Academy: Week 5

Last week’s class was held at the Law Enforcement Education Center on the campus of Hennepin Technical College in Brooklyn Park.  We’re in for another jam-packed evening, meeting with members of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office Community Engagement Team (CET) and representatives of the Professional Standards Division which includes Personnel and Range Instructors.

Law Enforcement & Criminal Justice Education Center source: www.jessicaellislaine.com
Law Enforcement & Criminal Justice Education Center source: jessicaellislaine.com

The highlight of the evening is the time we spend with the HCSO’s Range Instructors.  At the firing range, we’re given shooting vests, ear muffs, and protective eyewear.  I fuss over the eyewear because my fading eyesight is a product of old age: I’m farsighted but can’t see anything up close.  To wear glasses or not to wear glasses, that is the question.

Police Firing Range
Police Firing Range source: http://www.sodahead.com

I decide not to wear glasses.  When it’s my turn to shoot the handgun, a standard-issue Smith & Wesson M&P.40, the hunky instructor tells me to aim for the grey rectangle in the center of the person-shaped target.  Holding the gun (which is surprisingly heavy), my hands shake like FBI agent Clarice Starling’s as she follows serial killer, Jame Gumb, into that basement of horrors in The Silence of the Lambs. 

Silence of the Lambs Source: Orion Pictures
The Silence of the Lambs Source: Orion Pictures

Between my carpal tunnel, not lining up the target with the handgun sight properly, and frankly just not knowing what the $&@! I’m doing, I land one shot out of five in the grey rectangle.  One bullet hits the target’s head, another hits the cardboard outside the target’s body, and a third bullet hits the target’s groin area.  Ouch.

While my dreams of being drafted as an elite sniper are dashed, it turns out fellow Twin Cities’ Sister in Crime member, Theresa Weir is something of a natural: all five of her shots hit within the grey rectangle.  Her sharp shooting skills lead to some friendly teasing on Facebook.  “I’ll remember not to piss you off,” one person jokes.

My aim is a little better with the rifle because it has a scope.  All of my shots hit the target’s stomach. “You all hit there,” the instructor says, taking the wind out of my sails.

Interesting fact #1: While the military tests first-to-market guns and rifles, the HCSO tests first-to-market bullets from Alliant Techsystems in Anoka.

After the firing range, we head over to a video simulation lab.  These video simulations are used to train new recruits and offer a variety of potentially lethal scenarios: a domestic violence call, an unusual traffic stop, and a hold up-in-progress at a convenience store.

Video simulation Source: Jim Wilson, New York Times
Video simulation Source: Jim Wilson, New York Times

My scenario involves the convenience store, where my partner and I point our simulation guns at the robber who faces the cash register.  We shout things at him like, “Sir, move now!  Move now!  Put your hands up!  Hands up!  Look at me! Look at me!  Look at me!  Why won’t you look at me?”  Before we can yell out anything else, the robber turns around and shoots us both dead.  Cagney and Lacey, we are not.

Cagney and Lacey Source: Rex
Cagney and Lacey Source: Rex

It’s a scary predicament, being a cop in a potentially life-threatening situation.  Some experts believe more training, especially in tactics to defuse high-stress situations, could help both officers and suspects.  A recent study conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum concluded that the majority of training hours were spent on firearms and defensive tactics rather than on de-escalation and crisis intervention.

We’ve heard several people say, “You don’t read about HCSO officers in the papers,” and it’s true, you don’t.  On average, HCSO employees receive twice as many training hours as other police departments.  Does the additional training make a difference?  It certainly can’t hurt.

The training instructors also teach the new recruits how to read the Cooper color code of the tactical (or combat) mindset.  As one instructor explains, understanding your mindset during a tactical situation can be more important than your firearm or Taser skills.  Your mindset can literally make the difference between life and death.

Cooper Color Codes of Awareness Source: wayofthespiritualwarrior.co.uk
Cooper Color Codes of Awareness Source: wayofthespiritualwarrior.co.uk

There are five colors in the color code:

  1. White: Living in oblivion. Not a good place to be if something’s going down.
  2. Yellow: Slightly observant. Okay, but not ideal.
  3. Orange: Heightened awareness. The “sweet spot” on the color code.
  4. Red: High alert. An imminent threat has been identified.
  5. Black: Combat debrief. Your mindset after something goes down, processing what just happened. It should not be your mindset before something goes down or while something’s going down.

After the video simulation, we watch a Taser demonstration. The instructors assure us that it’s very uncommon for someone to die after being Tased.    Interesting fact #2: Even people with pacemakers can be safely Tased, so grandpas beware.

I could write a boring paragraph about how a Taser works, but there’s no need since I found this awesome graphic:

How a Taser Works Source: James Hilston, Post Gazette
How a Taser Works Source: James Hilston, Post Gazette

Interesting fact #3: The instructors say that the worst part of being Tased is pulling the fish hooks out of your skin after the Taser is fired.  Tasers eject standard fish hooks (size six, I think).

This week, the academy will come to an end (sniff).  So far, it’s been an excellent adventure.   I’m looking forward to learning how 911 works and wrapping things up with our celebration party.

The AWP Conference: Is It For Crime Writers?

AWP conference
AWP 15 Book Fair Source: AWP Twitter

About 13,000 writers flocked to Minneapolis last week for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference.  I knew the conference catered to the literary (or as one presenter put it, “boring”) crowd, but since it included many workshops and a gigantic book fair and was being held here in town at a fairly reasonable cost, I decided to give it a go.  Plus, its 24/7 event schedule gave me a valid excuse to stay in a hotel for two nights and temporarily ditch my day-to-day responsibilities as mother and wife.  Basically, this conference had me at hello but was it a worthwhile event for a writer of crime fiction?

If you want to know more about the conference-at-large, check out Peter Mountford’s hilarious and definitive article.  Here are some tips for fellow crime writers who are considering a future AWP conference.  Note:  At some point, you’ll have to admit to the literary fiction attendees that you are a *gasp* commercial fiction writer:

  • Don’t overschedule yourself. I attended 12 workshops on craft (about 4 per day) which gave me time to walk the book fair, eat lunch (the lines were super-long at the convention center), and avoid the feeling that my head was going to explode from the knowledge dump each workshop provided.
  • Skip sessions led by magazine or book editors. You already know how to get published: write something great, research the publication and editor, and submit proofed work in the exact format requested. I just saved you about 2 to 3 hours at the conference. You’re welcome.
  • Pick workshops that will boost your areas of weakness as a writer. As a first-time mystery novelist, I went to sessions that addressed plot, time and structure, genre fiction, crime fiction, noir fiction, violence, and how to write a sex scene. There were gems to be had in all of these workshops:
    • Plot is Character: Make $h!t happen. If you have a good voice, you can fix your plot.
    • Learning and Teaching Plot: Plot that feels inevitable but surprising stems from an understanding of how particular people behave in a particular situation.
    • Sex Scenes by Women, About Women: How do people secretly relate to one another when the doors are closed and people aren’t wearing their public faces?
    • What’s Wrong with Writing Genre?: Write what you know with a twist.
    • Substance as Style: What Noir Can Teach Us: In noir, the protagonist actively participates in his own demise by the choices he makes. As someone who’s writing what I call “medium-boiled seaside noir”, I love this definition.
  • Introduce Yourself to the Panelists. They want to meet you. Really. I finally mustered up the courage to do this on Friday afternoon with fellow Sisters in Crime members, Cathlene Buchholz and Sherry Roberts. We introduced ourselves to crime fiction panelists/novelists, Michael Kardos and Lori Rader-Day, who’d been signing books the night before at Once Upon a Crime mystery bookstore with Jessie Chandler. Both Michael and Lori were very generous with their time, and we were able to snap this photo with Lori before saying goodbye.
From left: Jessica Ellis Laine, Cathlene Buchholz, Lori Rader-Day, & Sherry Roberts
From left: Jessica Ellis Laine, Cathlene Buchholz, Lori Rader-Day, & Sherry Roberts
  • Attend Author Readings. I am kicking myself for not attending readings by Shannon Olson, Cheryl Strayed, and T.C. Boyle. On Saturday afternoon, I closed out the conference with authors Ana Mendez and Dani Shapiro who were interviewed by a moderator and later read from their work. It. Was. Amazing.
  • Go To After-Hours Events.
    On Thursday night, I went to the Loft Literary Center’s Awesome AWP Party with two writerly friends, Ann Bremer and Kayla Gray, who like me have taken several writing classes at the Loft. We met Peter Mountford there, author of the aforementioned AWP conference article, events curator for the Hugo House writing center (Seattle’s version of the Loft), member of the Seattle Seven writing group which includes Erik Larson (be still, my beating heart), and taker of the photo below.
From left: Kayla Gray, Jessica Ellis Laine, & Ann Bremer
From left: Kayla Gray, Jessica Ellis Laine, & Ann Bremer

Later that evening, Ann and I attended the AWP Dance Party at the Hilton Minneapolis which was hysterical for reasons too numerous to mention here.  Remember that movie White Men Can’t Jump?  Well, they can’t dance, either.

Friday night, Ann and I switched it up and went to Think Piece Publishing’s Pints and Prose event at Kieran’s Irish Pub with fellow mystery writer, Tes Brown, and her husband, Mike.  We heard stories and music by Julie Barton, Andy Steiner, and Honeydogs frontman, Adam Levy.  Janet Burroway (author of Writing Fiction) read from her memoir, Losing Tim which recounts the suicide of her sonI was reduced to tears within seconds.  Tes came to my rescue with a handful of paper napkins.  It was a beautiful and thought-provoking night.

Long story long, crime writers: The AWP conference isn’t geared towards genre writers, but it was fun and I learned a thing or two.  I’d definitely consider attending another one if I could drive (instead of fly) there again.